Having the better field position on the Sun Life Stadium pitch on Sunday will be a valued piece to the puzzle if the Jets eke out a win over the Dolphins and squeak into the AFC playoff grid. And there are a few areas to watch to see if the Green & White are giving themselves the best chance for the road win.
On the punt return front, it’s better late than never. Jeremy Kerley is getting up a head of steam.
“I’m starting to feel more comfortable and more confident back there,” Kerley said of his role early in the season and now late on the calendar as the team’s main punt returner. “That’s what you need to play with. That’s what you’ve got to have as a punt returner and a kick returner. You’ve got to be confident in yourself. When something goes wrong, you’ve got to shake it off and put it in the back of your head, because you can make a mistake thinking about what just happened.”
No mistakes Saturday — Kerley was as good as he’s been all season against the Giants. His first return was a 22-yarder to near midfield to start the Jets on their opening TD drive. Then he reeled off returns of 28, 14 and 10 yards. That’s four returns for 74 yards. He had 80 yards in Game 3 at Oakland, and those two games are among the four top PR-yardage games for the Jets in the last eight seasons.
The list includes Santana Moss’ 83-yard, one-TD game in the ’04 playoff game at Pittsburgh and Leon Washington’s 77-yard outing vs. Cincinnati in ’08.
Someday Kerley is going to go the distance and that would be most welcome for coaches Mike Westhoff and Ben Kotwica and Jets fandom because that return will likely be the one that ends the Jets’ drought of 118 games without a punt-return TD, tied for the longest in the NFL. But JK’s already got some of that professional perseverance working for him. He’s not going to force the issue at Miami.
“It’ll come, it’ll come. You’ve just got to be patient,” he said. “I’m approaching this game how I approach all of the games, because when you try to do too much, that’s when something will happen.”
On the kickoff front, the Jets in theory could have the edge in any KO exchanges. With Joe McKnight and Antonio Cromartie splitting the return duties recently because of McKnight’s elbow/shoulder issues, the Jets are off of their blistering season-opening pace yet still handily lead the NFL in average drive start after returns (26.4) while Miami’s coverage is 17th in opponents’ average drive start.
McKnight has been getting full-time treatment this week as he tries to finish his first regular season by nailing down several distinctions. He currently leads the NFL with a 31.9-yard average and could become the first Jet since Justin Miller in 2006 to lead the league in that department. And he could also break Bobby Humphery’s franchise record of 30.7 yards per return, with which he led the NFL in his rookie season in 1984.
While the Jets’ kickoff returns remain among the best in the game, their kickoff coverage unit has risen to prominence and could also play a field position role Sunday. Nick Folk’s kickoffs are resulting in an opponents’ drive start of their 21.3-yard line, seventh in the league, while the Dolphins’ returners, led by rookie Clyde Gates and his 25.0 return average, are again middle of the pick, 16th in the league with an average return to their 21.8.
It’s not just the coverage of the Jets’ big four special tacklers — Nick Bellore, Josh Mauga, Jamaal Westerman and Garrett McIntyre. Folk’s hangtime has had a lot to do with the Jets’ averages and their 25 inside-the-20 stops, third in the NFL.
“I’ve always had that. My natural kick is to get it up in the air pretty good,” Folk said this week. “I’m going to work on trying to get a little more drive on it this offseason. Early in the year I had that down, then as they year went on, well, I’ve got to make sure that stays more consistent throughout the year.
“But when you’re leading the league and they’re starting right at their 20 almost every time, you can’t really get mad at that. Our guys, they want to go down there and make tackles, try to get a turnover and whatnot. They’re excited about the touchbacks, but they’re also excited to make a big play inside the 20.”
It surprised me when I went back to check on the Jets’ kickoff hangtimes that I’ve kept over the last decade. From Doug Brien through Mike Nugent and Jay Feely, none of them ever had a season in which they averaged 4.00 seconds per kickoff. The closest was Feely’s 2009 season at 3.92. Folk came in last year and averaged 4.12 seconds, and this season he’s up to 4.24, a figure that was anchored by his current streak of 41 of his last 42 kickoffs hanging for at least 4.00 seconds.
Every tenth of a second helps, especially with a season on the line in the warm Miami air Sunday.
*Special Teams Saturday
Tags: Doug Brien, Jay Feely, Jeremy Kerley, Leon Washington, Miami Dolphins, Mike Nugent, Nick Bellore, Nick Folk, Santana Moss
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